Maybe it’s the weather, or tradition, or the fact that one of Persephone Farm’s farmers is named Slattery, but March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—generally marks the start of potato planting around here. That’s the day when we transfer the sacks of seed potatoes that have spent the winter chilling out in Louisa’s pump house to a sunnier spot to begin to bring them back to life.
This year, the potatoes, which are about the size of hen’s eggs, have spent the last couple of weeks on the floor of the greenhouse, basking in the sun like Florida vacationers. Some years, when it is still cool, Rebecca brings them into the farmhouse to warm them up. One year, we had a couple of hundred stashed under the bathtub for a few weeks. But we’ve had an unusually warm winter in the Northwest and some of the more ambitious varieties, like the All Blues, already had nine-inch green shoots pushing up from the potato bodies when Rebecca, Louisa and the interns moved them out to the lower field yesterday.
Potatoes are a one-day planting extravaganza around here. By noon, the farmers had eleven 50-foot beds prepped and ready to go. The winter cover crop of rye grass and field peas were mowed down with the weed whacker and rototilled under, laced with compost, then tilled again. The interns got their first try at using a broadfork, a peculiar device that airs out the soil. Ours comes from Johnny’s Select Seeds in Albion, Maine, and was designed by Eliot Coleman, a icon for microfarmers everywhere. It has two wooden handles and five long tines. You jump on it and wiggle it around to loosen things up, then pull back on the handles. Like this:
We are planting eight varieties of potatoes this year: Ozette, Desiree, German Butterball, Carola, Rose Fir Apple, All Blue, Red French Fingerling and Yellow Finn. Some of these are heritage varieties, potatoes with a past, with histories as colorful as their names.
Ozettes, for example, came up the coast from their original home in South America in 1791, carried by Spanish explorers to the far northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. The peninsula’s fierce winter storms drove the Spaniards out after just one season, but they left their potatoes behind. After that, the knobby little fingerling potatoes all but disappeared from circulation. The only farmers who raised them on this continent were the Makah Indians, whose reservation sits on the rugged outer coast, and they weren’t discovered by outsiders until the 1980s. Now our farm and a couple of other small farms in the area raise Ozettes and they are becoming a local star, much prized by chefs for their creamy texture and earthy flavor.
When the potato harvest concludes in October we will hold a potato showdown in the packing shed. Rebecca prepares samples of each spud variety, boiling some and roasting others with a little olive oil and salt. Then everyone sits down–farmers, apprentices and anyone else hanging around—and digs in. The potatoes are rated on their flavor, texture and general eating pleasure. Based in part on this scientific process, we usually drop some varieties and add others every year, but every variety has its fan club and no potato wins all the time. Louisa always votes for the Red French Fingerlings; Rebecca is a Rose Fir Apple fan. Our current interns, Greg and Caitlin, who have some potato experience after a hitch on a farm in Maine, already have announced they are voting for German Butterballs, which they say make the best home fries and hash browns.
We’ll see. But everyone agrees that the heritage breeds are much tastier than the bakers you buy at the supermarket. Each year, we send out a questionnaire to our CSA subscribers at the end of the season. And every year, in the comment section, several subscribers sing the praises of our potatoes over storebought varieties. (Well, not every year. Back during the Atkins low-carb diet days no one seemed to want any kind of potatoes. Thank goodness that’s over and done with.)
Another nice thing about potatoes, from the farmer’s perspective, is they offer plenty of bang for your buck. Most years, we can expect ten pounds of harvest potatoes for each pound of seedlings we put in the ground, A really good year might get us up to 20 pounds. It all depends on rain and the summer weather.
Of course we’d be nuts to predict in April what kind of weather we’ll be getting in July. Oh, why not? Our potatoes are safely bedded down for this year and we won’t see any late blight, or flea beetles, or whithering sun, or untimely frost, and we’ll need dump trucks instead of wheelbarrows for the harvest.